Student Initiation

by Justin Miera

This educational construct, "Student Directed Content Application," is divided into three main sections: student initiation, small group work, and students as teachers. While some of the particulars between these sections may overlap, this paper is designed to explore the area of student initiation. Student initiation is an abbreviated label for activities that students imagine, apply, and evaluate. Ideally, this approach helps students to become active participants in the learning process so that they can find relevance, and satisfaction, in any situation. One of the leading advocates of student initiation is William Glasser, M.D. His book, Choice Theory, addresses why students should have control over the content they study.

Glasser believes that all behavior is initiated from the inside of an individual, not from external stimulus. It is a person's choice to take an action. They do not react to something from the outside. The impetus for making a choice is based on one's needs. Likewise, students make the choice to work based on their needs. If the work is unsatisfactory, irrelevant, or externally enforced, then they will not rise to their scholastic potential. Students may maintain a strong grade point average, or post perfect attendance, but often it is to fulfill some need. Maybe, the need is to keep peace at home, or perhaps the need is to cash in on the bribe of a car to escape the peace at home. Ultimately though, according to Glasser, coercion does not motivate. He advocates that we, as teachers, find out how to help the student satisfy their needs. This is also similar to constructivist philosophy where the teacher helps the student construct their own reality. The teacher that takes this tack is more of a facilitator and guide; less of an imparter of information. When the teacher can understand the relevant connections for their students then the teacher inspires learning, not just test scores. Glasser also contends that we can not go back and satisfy old needs. Needs exist only in the present. If we hold students to past failures and outdated expectations, then there is no way for them to succeed. Worse, they have no desire to even try to work. If a student failed a math test on finding the perimeter of a circle then simply focusing on what they did wrong will be of little inspiration. On the other hand, an observant teacher might see that the student has skateboard stickers on their notebook. Calculating the perimeter of various skateboard wheels would then be a satisfying learning experience.

Glasser lists five basic needs that people must satisfy: "(1) to survive and reproduce, ... (2) to belong and love, (3) to gain power, (4) to be free, (5) to have fun" (Glasser, 1986, p. 23). The first two needs are described as universal necessities. If a student is threatened by a bully, they will not be able to concentrate on academics. If they are shunned by a peer group then their isolation is also unsatisfying. Glasser emphasizes power as the one need that is uniquely human. Glasser contends that our human power is not strictly about self satisfaction; it can be used to help others. He believes though, that power is a need beyond morality. It is how we express power that has moral implications. In many ways, the application of power relates to freedom. The highest form a freedom is not the ability to do anything we want, but rather freely taking the initiative to do the right thing. A good example of this is the Jewish notion of charity, Tzedakah. The lowest form of charity is when one has to give begrudgingly, or by coercion. Conversely, when one chooses to give of free will, then the charity is more valuable. Glasser discusses need for fun as more than entertainment. It is the act of having fun, or joy, in any activity. He observes that animals seem to have fun during the most mundane tasks. Likewise, humans are more satisfied in their work when they have fun. Glasser challenges teachers to evaluate their effectiveness with several questions like: Do your students (a) feel like they belong, (b) feel friendly and supportive, (c) realize power in knowledge, (d) have freedom to demonstrate the way they are making progress, and (e) have the opportunity for fun activities?

Glasser uses the imagery of learning pictures to describe need satisfaction. Learning pictures are taken of an activity that is satisfying. We use these pictures as a reference for the choices we make. If there is a negative experience, no picture, then we are less likely to choose it again. If teachers keep dredging up past mistakes then learning is less satisfying. New pictures can be put in by a new satisfying experience, or a significant other. That other person might be a loving parent, mentor or teacher. These people can inspire the student to attempt the experience again and create a fresh, new picture. One of the most powerful pictures for students is of their friends. Peer relationships are why most people persist in school. Unfortunately, contemporary schools do little to use these friendships as a tool for learning. Instead, individuals are held to solitary tasks and grades. Instead, Glasser touts that teams of students working together will create new pictures from the existing elements of friendships and school work.

Choice Theory leads us from student initiation to teaming. Glasser begins by showing how students learn, satisfying their basic needs. Unless students find relevance in the material, they will not work. When we listen to students, and their needs, we can help them cultivate the desire to learn. Students then become more powerful because they know how to learn, and shape their own destinies. Students gain their most satisfaction from friendships. By using these friendships in teams, their needs are profoundly satisfied. The next step is to develop teaming skills.


Glasser M.D., William (1986). Choice theory in the classroom. New York: Harper & Row.

A review of literature in partial fulfillment of the course Student Directed Content Application, MLS 654 I, Course Consultant is Mona Gardner, Ph.D., REGIS UNIVERSITY, March 1, 1999

Justin's Regis Papers Page